Rain

Earth is the cradle of the mind.
Sounds like junior needs a kick out the door.

It was raining on Earth.
. . . the whole Earth.

Well, except the poles—there, the rain was a furious blizzard. It was also raining underwater. Such fury had been excited in the impact that great cannonballs were pounding the shallows into a seething, bubbling confusion of water and air.

Humanity had seen the asteroid coming. It was 31 years out when we first spotted it, but it was also big. NASA took one look and shrugged. The other national space agencies did the same. There was just nothing to be done. We didn’t have the infrastructure. Didn’t have the experience. The tremendous rockets of the space launch system were finally putting our men and women on Mars. But it couldn’t budge that rock from its fateful course. Literally couldn’t, correct to the first five decimal places.

The politicians all begged and promised money. Especially in the United States. But it just couldn’t be done. It was already too late. We could only evacuate the East Coast, strengthen the colonies on other planets to hedge our bets, and hope for the best.

On that morning of 2060, a mountain-sized interplanetary bullet on a chance encounter kerplunked into the Atlantic Ocean, and Earth shivered in the torrent of its own frozen waters, churned up from the depths. Debris fell on the other side of the planet; the sky was darkened for a year; the loss of life was catastrophic. And so the people declared that whatever it took, whatever expense had to be paid, whatever technologies had to be developed, this would never be allowed to happen again.

. . . and that’s how we finally reached for the stars . . .

Sex Discrimination

The fairer sex? More like unfair.

For a single rocket, gender falls within the engineering slack. But—and NASA didn’t like very much to discuss it—the more you invest, mission-resources-wise, in your astronauts, the more you want them to be female.

Every gram counts, and women end up being preferable due to cascading effects of this rule. Women are, on average, a bit lighter, but the real benefits are secondary. Lighter means less EVA fuel, less transfer fuel, smaller boost costs, smaller and lighter spacesuits and clothes—and over a mission lifetime, vastly less food, less water, less mass that needs to be heaved out of Earth’s gravity well at thousands of dollars per precious kilogram. Then make everything modular and tailored to one gender instead of two, and everything gets simpler, smaller, and, yes, lighter. Every gram counts.

And so, in the early years, more and more astronauts just sortof happened to be women. Only by slashing launch costs could a compelling economic (and let’s face it, sociological) argument for equality be made. Construction began on ISS Clarke, the terminus of the first space elevator, the instant the required materials were developed. The politicians, so statistically male, so staunchly and implicitly anti-science for so long, had finally looked up at all the smiling ladies in the heavens and found envy. The funding for ISS Clarke, long proclaimed impossible to acquire, somehow materialized immediately.

And they painted it red . . .


Ed. note: This story was derived from my own reasoning but apparently, real engineers think the same way.

Artificial Gravity

Highest bidder loses.

“Why can’t we design in a rotating ring?”

“Because think about the bearing. The entire circumference of the fuselage must be sealed—a seal which, by the way, must be both absolutely airtight and operational for years on end, at minimum.”

“The seal doesn’t have to be on the inside of the habitat.”

“Well, then you have to EVA every time you want to go anywhere else in the ship. No one’s really figured out a great material to resist vacuum welding either. If it happens anywhere and that bearing seizes up . . . well. Best case, you dump your precious, life-giving atmosphere into space and everyone dies. Worst case, any habitat worth having has enough momentum to wrench the ship in twain—so everyone dies, and the ship isn’t even worth salvaging afterward.”

Best case, you dump your precious, life-giving atmosphere into space and everyone dies.

“Well, why can’t we spin the whole ship?”

“That turns null-g into micro-g, complicates docking and navigation, and confuses the hell out of your pets. And you still need to get that spin in the first place—what a horrid waste of mass. We only bother for stations, because we only need to do it once.”

“What a delightful mélange of engineering and physics.”

“Yeah. Mag-boots are clumsy, but at least they won’t kill everyone.”

The Forest Town

Sometimes, you’re the cause of your own dystopias.

In the quiet, sylvan hills of California, a small town is untouched by the future.

The town’s single road still twists past the same businesses—the same mom-and-pop videocassette rental place that clings to life somehow, in this era of autostereoscopic displays and oct-HD encodings. The same dingy diner under new management, the same hotel with four rooms. In the evenings, a neon sign can be seen flickering in the café window, advertising fresh pastries, and the bistro beside it casts a golden light onto the row of parked cars, as working-class men and their wives celebrate a day’s work in measures of liquor.

Yes, a quiet town, separate from the future into which the rest of the world is racing so breathlessly. Sometimes, driving down one of the many ill-maintained byways, you’ll see a couple drinking lemonade on a faded porch, enjoying the cool summer breeze that blows from the west, the sun streaming through the dusty trees. The supermarket is staffed, and the checkout lady knows your name. To the south, a converted chapel is a museum, chronicling the good old days when men’s men harvested the great redwoods with makeshift hand tools, and floated the timber down the river to the bay.

We cling to our past, yet not because we are scared of the future per-se. We simply grew up in the past, and in some sense, we feel like we belong there. As Earth and the other planets race into the future, we take comfort in our collective childhoods, in our collective story, written indelibly into our most precious memories.

Can you remember the shaded brook, on whose banks we used to play? The park up the winding stairs, with the railing where you once clung after your first bee sting? Your friend’s house, where they had that party for Y2K? The autumn rain? The frostbitten, silver-lined leaves? Or the narrow dirt pathway, winding into the mountains, past the slope covered with dead grass that you used to ride down on sheets of cardboard? You remember cardboard, don’t you?

I do. And these things cannot be touched by the future, whatever it may hold.

I used to look down every time. I used to look down at that tiny spot, invisible from space, where I knew my home must be. And every time I imagined I caught a view through the trees—and then I was gone, pulled away, racing through the sky at speeds inconceivable, in a spacecraft’s desperate sprint against gravity. Part of that greedy future, I would fly ahead of that sleepy town in a single breath, relegating my imagined vision to the past.

But on the next orbit, I would see it again. And again. And every time it was like I was coming back home. That, even as I was part of the future, I kept returning, inexorably, like the clockwork universe, to that sylvan town under the stars.

Continuity

Good health starts young.

A few years after the first crop of men (for their adventurous spunk) and women (for popular appeal, lower mass, and because they quite rightly insisted) began living together in space—really actually living in space—eventually nature took its ageless course.

As had been known from the earliest NASA and Soviet missions, everything “works” in space. But there’s a problem. On Earth, embryos develop under an effectively uniform acceleration, allowing them to develop such necessities as skeletons and brain tissue. The first (official) pregnancy in zero-gee ended in tears all around—and some rather graphic footnotes in ontogenic texts. But, lesson learned, fetuses need gravity.

That’s sortof a problem if you’re living in free-fall.

Under the circumstances, the nascent U.N. issued a surprisingly uncontroversial mandate barring more than one week of a pregnancy to be below 0.12g. This seemingly arbitrary cutoff allowed colonies on the larger moons to be sustained (but of course, citizens were encouraged to return to Earth for child-rearing). In those early years, no one really knew exactly how much gravity was required, although it seemed to fall in a range. Martian children seemed normal. Toddlers from Ganymede had trouble breathing.

Upgrade

Some people take the future too seriously.

“We’ve got another modder, ma’am.”

“Again? We shouldn’t have an ER. We should have a receiving bay for imbeciles.”

“I mean, it’s a simple idea, incrementally replacing your own body with mechanisms, one piece at a time, but it just doesn’t work. At least not yet. One of the surgeries always fails.”

“Obviously. It’s such a suicidal way to achieve immortality.”

Tales From the Midnight Campfire

. . .

“Long ago, when the world was younger, there was a great king who ruled a vast kingdom. His daughter, a princess, was renowned for her beauty. Yet none dared to court her, for though she longed for a husband, she was quick to judge and loath to forgive.

Finally, two brothers came to the castle—and like those before, the princess rejected them. Yet as they turned to leave, she hailed them. That they would not go away empty-handed, the princess told the men that each had but to rest his eyes upon a thing, and it would become theirs.

The elder brother, who was crafty, quickly set his eyes upon the princess, but she shook her head sadly, for in her offer she excepted herself alone. In disappointment, he climbed the highest minaret in the castle and set his eyes to the horizon. And so the duchy became his to rule.

The younger brother closed his eyes in thought. Then, wandering through the castle, he came to the great doors, flooded through by setting sun. He opened his eyes to the crimson sky, and the princess, who followed his gaze, smiled.

‘My foolish brother,’ said the elder, ‘you could have had an empire!’

‘True,’ said the younger, as the world faded into darkness, ‘But I have the stars.’

And so, the younger brother departed the castle with empty hands. Yet, in his heart, there was eternal joy.”

sky


Ed. note: the artwork in this post was created by my new friend, painting under the pseudonym “Dizzy Chen”. It is my hope that her artwork and my stories will continue to compliment each other for many posts into the future.

Homo sapiens sapiens

Nothing to do with corn.

“Ladies, Lords.

Today, with the advent of cheaply available nanomutagens, we are seeing an explosion in human genetic alteration ranging from pre-natal to geriatric—and from targeted risk factor reduction to wholesale alteration of secondary sexual characteristics. The government does not possess any agency for regulating such operations, and the recent passage of court bill 2301AP-8903 legally binds it to inaction. I believe this is a failure on the part of this committee, inasmuch as we are obligated to also advise policy.

The problem is that legalization of all such genetic engineering doesn’t merely pass the burden of inevitable failures onto the expectant parents or individual requesting the treatment (as the legislature appears to have concluded); it also creates a sociogenetic debt.

True, we have overseen the almost complete eradication of the more common genetically linked susceptibilities—as well as single-gene genetic disorders proper, such as CF and TS in the last decade alone. In the case of the former, we can all agree that eliminating the most common ΔF508 mutation was a triumph of science and humanity.

But what about myopia? If present trends continue, genes for imperfect eyesight will be ruthlessly bred out until no human wears eyeglasses. Gone will be the bespectacled academic, the horn-rimmed librarian, the bookish teen. This correction of a genetic fault will thereby alter our culture.

People have preferences for hair, eye color, and so on. So far, diversity has been preserved only by the presence of differing racial and societal expectations of attractiveness. But already we see evidence of women crippled by their parents’ absurdly idealized notions of beauty, especially body weight, and men too Hellenistically sculpted to fit into standard space suits. We’re at an inflection point where an entire generation could be born blond if some hypothetical singer with sandy hair became sufficiently popular.”

SPEAKER HER LADYSHIP SUSANNA CHRISTINE ATTWATER
ARGUMENTATION IN SIG GENIC OVERSIGHT
TS [2301-05-22 13:28, 2301-05-22 13:33]
APPROVED FOR RELEASE WITH EDITS 2301-07-09 DEPT REF 009

Xenoarchaeology

Some things are more important than gold statues, Indy.

Forerunner galactic civilizations are a staple of xenoarchaeologic research grants, yet their underpinning, background ubiquity seldom enlighten those who study them. Currently, no fewer than eleven separate forerunner civilizations are known to have colonized the Milky Way to various degrees, the earliest surviving artifacts of which date back some eight billions of years.

It seems that some natural cycle of rise and recession alternately unites alien races and then isolates them, creating a chronology of forerunner civilizations—of which ours is merely the latest. There is no reason to believe our present civilization is privileged, and yet no one is quite sure why no iteration has ever really caught on permanently.

Some of the very longest-lived species have surviving legends that possibly implicate membership in the previous civilization—which decayed some tens of millions of years ago—but on such timescales of millions and billions of years, it is more common for member races to die out entirely.

Surviving artifacts are common, but often maddeningly uninformative. Almost no devices survive the ravages of time intact, save only those few that self-repair. (The most famous examples are the ring devices—featureless wheels whose only interesting property is making investigating vessels disappear. For 30,000 years, nothing more about them has been discovered.)

It seems that, just as galactic-scale government is not fit for cosmic longevity, nor are any individual species, let alone their technologies.

Colonists

We’re a little short on crew.

The first “live” interstellar colonists to arrive successfully on an exoplanet in a nearby system were a group of six malnourished Vietnamese women. (A seventh died in hibernation, as had been statistically predicted.)

Between Sol’s planets, economies of scale and orbital infrastructure allow minor differences in weight to be tolerable. Tickets are still based on mass, as-measured by the travel agency on launch day to the nearest gram, so women and children are cheap. But even if you’re obese, you can still pay your way.

But when you’re talking about interstellar distances, every extra gram you accelerate to and back again requires energy comparable to the annihilation of a weapons-grade quantity of antimatter. That energy has to come from somewhere.

So, because men’s contribution can be saved and women’s can’t, the colonists were all women. The large diversity of the former could also cut down on the number of women required. But a bit of careful selection and reduction of key nutrients in her diet cut down the average woman’s mass by 15kg each. When you factor in the commensurate reduction in life support, their ship spent only 248 years in transit—fast enough to arrive by 2599-11-3, just under two months before the UFP’s deadline.